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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 2 (May 1, 1935)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 26 — Sir Harry Atkinson: Pioneer, Soldier, and Premier

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 26
Sir Harry Atkinson: Pioneer, Soldier, and Premier.

“We are few, but the right sort,” Nelson wrote of his hearties of the “Agamemnon” in the Mediterranean in 1794. The Taranaki settlers could have said that of themselves in 1860 when the Maori war began. Harry Atkinson was a leader among those stout-hearted farmers from the South of England who founded the New Plymouth settlement and turned soldiers when occasion called. He was a captain in the first Volunteer Rifle Corps in the British Empire to meet an enemy in the field. He engaged in provincial and national politics with the same vigour and success that he had displayed on the Taranaki battle-ground. He was three times Premier of New Zealand; he was knighted during his last premiership, and he was Speaker of the Legislative Council when he died in Wellington in 1892. In his soldiering career he was a perfect frontiersman, as skilled in bush fighting as any Maori warrior. In political life he was a strong but not brilliant figure, a plain-living and plain-spoken man who won place and power by his honesty of purpose, his perseverance and his great capacity for work.

Sir Harry Atkinson, K.C.M.G.

Sir Harry Atkinson, K.C.M.G.

The Founders of Taranaki.

No British Colony planted in a new country had a more courageous, determined and industrious set of pioneers than the men and women of Devon and Cornwall and Essex, with some from Yorkshire, who peopled the bush-covered province of Taranaki in the young ‘Forties, and, under many difficulties, established a beautiful group of farming settlements beneath the seaward flanks of grand old Egmont. There were many families among them whose descendants bear with pride names of high honour in the annals of New Zealand. There were makers of the nation there, the Atkinsons and Richmonds, the Smiths and Hursthouses, the Messengers, North-crofts, Bayleys, Carringtons and Ardens, and many another who very literally cut out their homes from the wilds. It was not only the obstacles of wild Nature they had to conquer in this forest-tangled land that is now the richest region of the Island. There was the Maori, at first a friend but forced into very active hostility when the inevitable land disputes began. The Maori, for all his early amicable dealings with the New Plymouth pioneers, soon realised that the shiploads of English settlers and the demand for more land for settlement would in the end prevail, and the Land League was formed to dam back the pakeha flood.

No need here to tell the story of the foolish Waitara purchase that precipitated the war in 1860. Sharp and bitter war it was, that set the province back well-nigh twenty years. New Plymouth and the neighbouring settlements had a white population of about two thousand five hundred, of whom between five and six hundred were men and youths of fighting age. The town was entrenched; the outer districts were deserted and left to the mercy of the Maori nationalist forces; and the peaceful citizen and farmer were compelled to cease their activities and learn the art of war. There was good material there; none better. They were not Regular troops fighting because it was their paid calling. They served not for the glory and adventure of one of the Empire's little wars. They were peace-loving men forced into defence of their homes. There were rights and wrongs on both sides; as our histories have recorded. The Taranaki settlers, from the greybeard to the sixteen-year-old lad, took the field under sheer necessity of holding what they had won from the bush.

Atkinson and the Rifle Volunteers.

Natural leaders emerged from the few hundreds of bushmen and ploughmen and stock-raisers; men already well schooled in the rugged toil of settlement, familiar with the forest, and its tracks, and quick to adapt themselves to the conditions of guerilla fighting. One of these leaders was young Harry Albert Atkinson, farmer and bushman, a man of yeoman family, strong of frame, eager and sometimes fiery of temperament, fearless yet cautious where caution was needed; determined and masterful. He was one of the first men to join the afterwards celebrated Taranaki Rifle Volunteer Company, when it was formed in New Plymouth in 1858—the first volunteer corps in the British countries to fight an action with a foe. That pioneer company of settler-soldiers was a hundred strong. Atkinson quickly learned his drill; he was already, like most of his comrades, a competent rifle shot. When the tragic quarrel at Waitara began in 1860, two companies were formed, and the No. 2 Company elected Harry Atkinson as their captain.

It was not long before the Taranaki Rifles and the Militia had an opportunity of distinguishing themselves by their courage and steadiness under fire and their efficiency as skirmishers. Their first encounter with the Maoris was at Waireka, on the coast five miles south of New Plymouth. This was a combat of varying fortunes ending most dramatically by a Naval column storming a fortified position and relieving the hard-pressed Volunteers and Militia.

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The Battle of Waireka.

Young Captain Atkinson and his company of riflemen formed part of a composite column despatched to Omata from New Plymouth on March 28, 1860. The force consisted of a small detachment of men from H.M.S. Niger a company of the 65th Regiment, a hundred Rifle Volunteers, and 56 of the Taranaki Militia, the whole under Lieut.-Colonel Murray, a British Regular officer. Captain Charles Brown was in command of the Colonial units in the column. The Volunteers were under Captain Atkinson and Lieuts. Hirst, Hamerton, Webster and Jones; and the Militia officers were Captain and Adjutant Stapp (a veteran of the 58th Regiment, who had served in Hone Heke's War), Lieutenants McKechney and McKellar, and Ensign W. B. Messenger (afterwards Colonel). The mission of this expedition was to rescue the Rev. H. H. Brown and his family and some other settlers who had remained on their Omata farms. As it happened, they were not in danger; the minister was held tapu by the Maoris because of his sacred office. But there was blundering on the part of the superior Imperial officers. The force was ordered to be back in New Plymouth by dark. The Regulars marched by the main road to Omata; the Volunteers and Militia by the beach. There was a strong body of well-armed Maoris entrenched at Kaipopo, a commanding hill about a mile and a half south of the Colonial forces' stockade at Omata. The Maori position commanded the way to the beach; near it a small stream, the Waireka (“Sweet-water”) flowed out through a narrow partly wooded valley. Near the bank of this stream there was a farmhouse, a small building which Mr. John Jury had occupied until the war began. Lieut.-Colonel Murray's force, the main body, opened fire on the Maoris near Omata but before dusk the commander marched his men back to town, in accordance with orders, leaving the Volunteers and Militia to fight it out with the Maoris from Kaipopo Pa, who had almost surrounded them in the valley of the Waireka and were swarming over the broken ground above them.

The engagement developed into a desperate battle, in which the only help the settler-soldiers received was from a few Navy men (Lieut. Blake, R.N., was badly wounded) and eight men of the 65th Regiment who had been left with the Militia. It was now nearly dark and the Maoris kept up a hot fire on the little force at Jury's homestead. This force had suffered several casualties; a sergeant of Militia (Fahey) and a “Niger” man had been killed, and eight men wounded, including Lieut. Hamerton and Private W. Messenger (father of Ensign Messenger); the latter had his right elbow shattered by a bullet.

The Taranaki Volunteer Rifles and Militia in the Battle of Waireka, 1860. Maori Pa Kaipopo on the hill. (From a water-colour drawing by A. H. Messenger).

The Taranaki Volunteer Rifles and Militia in the Battle of Waireka, 1860. Maori Pa Kaipopo on the hill.
(From a water-colour drawing by A. H. Messenger).

Meanwhile Captain Atkinson had been doing useful work, holding a good strategic position above the Waireka stream and on the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea. His company included both Volunteers and Militia. His post commanded the flanks and rear of the terrace on which the farmhouse stood and the mouth of the Waireka. Shooting steadily from this position Atkinson and his men inflicted many casualties on the Ngati-Ruanui musketeers. They stood fast in their position, picking off the Maoris, while the rest of the force hurriedly put the jury farm-yard in a state of defence, throwing together a breastwork of all material available—firewood, fence rails and posts, and even sheaves of oats from stacks near the house.

An Anxious Hour.

The condition of the Taranaki men was very serious, for their ammunition was almost done, and it was believed that the Maoris would rush the place when night fell. Firing now was restricted to the best shots; and Ensign Messenger, at Stapp's request, went round and saw that each man had a cartridge for the expected rush. They would then have to depend on their bayonets.

All at once, as night was drawing over the scene the sound of heavy firing and loud cheering was heard from Kaipopo hill. The Maoris ceased to press in on the settlers and retreated hurriedly up the slopes to their palisaded pa.

The order to leave the position was given by Captain Stapp—the most experienced officer in the force, who had been requested by Captain Brown to take charge early in the day's work. Bearing their dead and wounded the Volunteers and Militia retreated on Omata stockade and thence marched back to the town, reaching there after midnight. Atkinson's men formed the rearguard, with the eight soldiers of the 65th who had remained with the settlers.

The Naval Storming Party.

What had happened on Kaipopo hill to cause such a sudden end of the Maori attack? The settlers in arms discovered that at Omata stockade. Captain Peter Cracroft, the vigorous commander of H.M.S. “Niger,” had marched out a company of his blue-jackets and marines, sixty in all, to the relief of the Colonial soldiers. In the dashing Navy way, he went straight for that Maori stockade, and stormed it most gallantly, his eager sailors making little of the fire from the trenches. Shooting and slashing, the Navy lads were over the stockade and the trenches in a few moments, “like a pack of schoolboys,” as a veteran of Waireka told me. The Maori loss was heavy. The attack was delivered at the right time and in just the right way to save the settler-soldiers from a disaster.

There was tremendous excitement in New Plymouth; the “Nigers” and the page 22 page 23 Taranaki riflemen were the heroes of the hour. The settlers had proved their worth as warriors. Fathers and sons and brothers fought side by side. There were four Messengers in the day's work. The picture of the Waireka battle illustrating this article was drawn by Mr. A. H. Messenger, of Wellington, son of Ensign W. B. Messenger who later became Colonel in the New Zealand Permanent Force. This water-colour is based on data given by the artist's father, and sketches on the spot, and several of the figures can be identified as those of well-known New Plymouth soldiers and settlers.

So ended the Taranaki settlers' first battle. Atkinson's and Stapp's men inflicted heavy casualties on the Maoris, but it was Cracroft's splendid attack that decided the day and cleared the district of the Maoris. The tribes had intended to move on New Plymouth, but that offensive was stopped for the present.

Mahoetahi, and a Story of Atkinson.

There was almost constant soldiering duty for a year following Waireka, until the first Taranaki war closed. The Volunteers and Militia were engaged in many bush expeditions, scouting, and patrolling the roads and tracks, in rear of the town, and now and again skirmishing with the war-parties and foragers of the tribes. There was a sharp affair, the battle of Mahoetahi, where the British and Colonial troops stormed the position held by warriors of the Ngati-Haua and Ngati-Maniapoto tribes from the North; this was on November 6, 1860. Captain Atkinson and his men were in that thrilling charge. Another of the Atkinsons was in the field that day; W. S. Atkinson, who commanded a friendly Maori contingent.

A story of the Mahoetahi affair that reveals the fiery determined Atkinson of those heroic days was told by the late Dr. Grace (who was surgeon with the troops in Taranaki and elsewhere) in his book of Maori War reminiscences. It was still rather dark when Major-General Pratt's column mustered in Devon Street, New Plymouth. The Taranaki Rifle Volunteers were intended to act as support, and space was left in the column for their companies. When the force was ready to march, as the space retained was not nearly filled, there was “much tittering and ridicule,” as Dr. Grace put it, among the Imperial soldiers. Colonel Carey, the Adjutant-General, rode up to Captain Atkinson and said.—

“Captain, this is very bad. Where are your men?”

Captain Atkinson's eyes shone with a fierce light as he replied in a hoarse trumpet voice:—

“Colonel, let the column advance. My men will fall in as we go, and in any case there are enough Volunteers here to storm the Pa!”

This answer electrified the listeners. The news of Atkinson's defiant air spread like wildfire through New Plymouth. His men joined the column in threes and fours as it marched along and soon the complete force of the Rifles was in the column. The force halted below Mahoetahi hill on which the Maoris were concealed (the main highway from New Plymouth to Waitara and the North cuts through the ridge close to the site at eight miles from New Plymouth).

“The Honour of the Assault.”

The officer in command could see no Maoris. A thin wreath of smoke curled up on the hill-top. Pratt and Carey were discussing the situation when Captain Atkinson walked up to the General and said, in a voice that did not conceal the emotions seething within him:—

“General, my men were slow in parading. This is our land. I claim for the Taranaki Volunteers the honour of the assault.”

The General looked at Colonel Carey who said:—

“Captain, the dispositions for the attack are not yet completed. In any case, you and your men are entitled to an honourable position in the field. You shall hear from the General later.”

It was decided that the assault should be headed by a company of the 65th Regiment and a company of the Taranaki Volunteers under Captain Atkinson. The Volunteers were extended to the left front of Mahoetahi, their left flank under Captain Atkinson on the extreme left. With a rush they took possession of a hill about a hundred yards from the pa where the Maoris lay hidden. Major Herbert, commanding the combined storming party, received the order to charge. Under a hot fire the Volunteers furiously assaulted the hill-top, bayonet for bayonet with the big Irishmen of the 65th on their right. The Maoris met them hand to hand; there were many desperate encounters with bayonet and tomahawk. Two of the Volunteers were killed. Atkinson himself with a small party occupied a low hill on the left and kept up a destructive flanking fire. The Maori resistance, though heroic, was short. The hill was cleared; nearly fifty warriors lay dead on the field.

Atkinson's Bush Rangers.

In the second Taranaki war, 1863, the Imperial authorities gave the settler-soldiers practically a free hand in bush fighting; they had not made sufficient use of them in Major-General Pratt's time in the first war. More effective methods of frontier service were introduced by the formation of special corps for the purpose of following the Maoris into the bush and clearing the country surrounding New Plymouth town. Captain Harry Atkinson was the soul of these free-roving tactics. His party of fifty men of No. 2 Company, Taranaki Rifles, was the first corps of forest rangers to take the field in New Zealand. Jackson's

page 24 and Von Tempsky's Forest Rangers in the Waikato War were patterned on the example of the Taranaki men.

Atkinson's force, as the war went on, was increased to two companies and was called the Taranaki Bush Rangers.

These active fellows, armed with Terry breechloading carbines and revolvers, scoured the country, watched all the tracks, penetrated far into the wild bush, and soon had the land free from hostiles for many a mile. Atkinson's principal fellow-Rangers in this arduous and useful commission were Captain F. Webster and Lieuts. Brown, Jones, McKellar and W. B. Messenger.

There was a particularly sharp engagement in the open towards the end of 1863, when Atkinson, Webster and Messenger commanded the Volunteers and Militia, in co-operation with Colonel Warre and the 57th Regiment.

Many a man was trained in bush-scouting and skirmishing under Atkinson. One of his “old boys” was the late Captain Henry W. Northcroft, N.Z.C. Another was Captain J. R. Rushton, of Kutarere, on Ohiwa Harbour, Bay of Plenty; he was the Chief Government Scout at Opotiki after his service on the West Coast. Rushton, tall, lean, long-legged, a perfect bushman, had his first practical schooling in the Rangers. He wrote to me in 1921 about his old comrades and his commanding officer:—

“The Taranaki boys—the Maoris had no chance with them, man for man, in the bush. Skirmishing with them under Captain (afterwards Major) Atkinson taught me much about taking cover in bush fighting that served me well in other campaigns during nearly eight years' service in the Maori wars. It is always pleasing to a soldier to be able to remember with affection his old officer. When spoken to by Sir Harry Atkinson one knew that he was a kind friend as well as a commanding officer.”

On the Political Battleground.

At first occupied in Parliament when he took his seat there as a Taranaki M.H.R.—with purely provincial interests, it was not long before Major Atkinson found himself battling as fiercely over national issues as he had fought for the land in his Egmont country. He soon became a force in the Legislature; he feared no man and had scant respect for most. By instinct a Conservative, he was suspicious of innovations; he was a practical economist, and he cared not a whit for public opinion when he had made up his mind on a certain course. Sheer force of character and enormous industry made him three times Premier of the Colony. His record as Premier began in September, 1876. He held his place for a year until Sir George Grey succeeded him leading the new Liberal Party. Grey's and then Sir John Hall's terms as Premier lasted until April, 1882, when Atkinson and his conservative following again came into power. In the following year Robert Stout displaced him. In 1887 Atkinson once more took the Premiership and held it until the beginning of 1891 brought John Ballance and his Liberal Party into power and the mana of the old Conservatives was laid low. The veteran of Taranaki, now Sir Harry Atkinson, K.C.M.G., a weary
Arthur Richmond Atkinson (Died in Wellington, March 26, 1935). (S. P. Andrew, photo.)

Arthur Richmond Atkinson
(Died in Wellington, March 26, 1935).
(S. P. Andrew, photo.)

man after his combative career, found a leisured and honoured place as Speaker of the Legislative Council to round off his long and useful life.

For an estimate of Sir Harry Atkinson as a politician I turn to an excellent brief summing-up of his capacity and career in Miss N. E. Coad's recently published history, “New Zealand from Tasman to Massey” (published by Harry H. Tombs, Ltd.). Miss Coad says that undoubtedly the outstanding Premier of the ‘Eighties was Atkinson, who had been one of the great personalities in the Continuous Ministry of the ‘Seventies. “Strangely enough,” she writes, “he is to-day but little known, but that may be because he did not possess the glittering spectacular qualities and the political initiative of Vogel. True, times were hard during his administration, but that does not explain why Vogel so often gets the credit of important measures that were really carried through by Atkinson. The abolition of the Provincial Parliaments is a case in point. Nevertheless, Atkinson exemplified in his person the best characteristics of the colonial public man. Outside the House he was a working colonist; inside it a hard-working politician whose feet were firmly planted on the ground. No flowery rhetorician he, but rather a plain blunt man who spoke briefly and to the point about essential details… . He had good executive ability—an excellent thing in a Prime Minister. Per contra, he lacked suavity in manner, nor did he possess the polish and courtesy of Grey… . As Pember Reeves put it, he was abrupt, even tart in his manner—overworked people often are. He won the political battle over the Abolition of the Provinces Bill, and he twice restored financial equilibrium during periods of economic stress. Few men have packed so much into a life as Sir Harry Atkinson.”

Arthur Richmond Atkinson.

The Atkinsons were a family distinguished in public life and in the literary world. One of Sir Harry's nephews was Mr. Arthur Richmond Atkinson, who died in Wellington on March 26 of this year, at the age of seventy-two. He was Taranaki-born, the son of Mr. A. S. Atkinson, himself a man of note in Maori research. The family became residents of Nelson, which has always been a centre of culture in New Zealand, and it was there that A. R. Atkinson received the first impetus towards the scholarly life. Oxford gave him the literary tastes which became the great interest of his career, although he took up the profession of the law. He served on local governing bodies and in the New Zealand Parliament, and was a leader in social reform during his forty years and more in Wellington, but the work which called forth his highest qualities of brain and soul was his journalistic writings. He was a leader-writer for the “Evening Post” for, I think, quite thirty years, and daily newspaper work of this kind calls for knowledge wide and deep and varied, as well as for great industry. As book reviewer, under the pen-name “Ajax,” Mr. Atkinson did a very great deal to help forward New Zealand literature, and many a colonial writer has cause to remember him with lasting gratitude. “Ajax,” unlike many reviewers, really took the trouble to read the books he dealt with. He was a pleasant, loveable man, ever ready to help a cause for the public betterment, and out of the richness of his scholarship ever generous with his wise and kindly counsel.

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Where Nature Charms and Cures: Told by the Camera Ohinemutu, on the shore of Lake Rotorua, North Island, New Zealand.

Where Nature Charms and Cures: Told by the Camera Ohinemutu, on the shore of Lake Rotorua, North Island, New Zealand.

(Rly. Publicity photos.) The fine Sanatorium and grounds at Rotorua, North Island, New Zealand. When the Rotorua flats were mostly a manuka wilderness, bubbling with springs of varying temperatures and swathed with steam, to “take the waters” at Rotorua was an adventure. Each bather had to be his own thermometer. But fifty years have brought a revolution, and have made these wonderful waters safe and salutary for everyone, while the scenic assets are available to the tourist at moderate cost with all modern comforts. Do New Zealanders fully realise it? The manuka wilderness has given place to the sanatorium here pictured. The landscape beauty of Ohinemutu, disclosed in the other photograph, is perfect.

(Rly. Publicity photos.)
The fine Sanatorium and grounds at Rotorua, North Island, New Zealand.
When the Rotorua flats were mostly a manuka wilderness, bubbling with springs of varying temperatures and swathed with steam, to “take the waters” at Rotorua was an adventure. Each bather had to be his own thermometer. But fifty years have brought a revolution, and have made these wonderful waters safe and salutary for everyone, while the scenic assets are available to the tourist at moderate cost with all modern comforts. Do New Zealanders fully realise it? The manuka wilderness has given place to the sanatorium here pictured. The landscape beauty of Ohinemutu, disclosed in the other photograph, is perfect.